It is often suggested that, in the longer term (say to 2050), India will have a developmental advantage over China because India is a functioning democracy and China is not. Leaving aside the question of what would constitute a functioning democracy, why India would be included in this category, and why China would be excluded; we are left with an empirical question as to whether or not democracies favour long term development. However, before looking at the facts, it is worth examining an explanatory model.
The causality of the linkage between democracy and development is rarely explained. There has been as association between the two in the past, but we do not know whether this is simply coincidental. When models are propounded, it is along the lines of platitudes rather than reason. For example, in an article in The Futurist, it was stated that ‘the incremental efficiencies of India’s democratic government are likely to overcome the greater short-term efficiencies of China’s command system’ (see abstract of article). We are not told why this should be the case.
The Economist surveyed this question a couple of years ago (see article). It would seem that the evidence suggests that autocracies have an edge over democracies when it comes to development. The causality model is quite simple. As prosperity increases, the democratic process is called into action to share the increase in prosperity more widely. In turn, this slows the process of development as funds that otherwise would have been earmarked for investment are instead used for wealth redistribution.
The Business this week carried an interesting example of this process in action (see article). The article describes how the Indian government, emulating the Chinese government, have attempted to establish special economic zones. This process has been inhibited greatly by protests – both legal and extra-legal challenges – to the detriment of the policy. In India, as the actions of government are subject to democratic review, policy-makers do not have the same freedom for action as the policy-makers in China. Local interests are not so easily swept aside for developmental projects as they are in China.
In the long term, this could develop into a situation where China is the richer country, but India is the nicer place in which to live. Perhaps this is the Asian version of the Atlantic dilemma?